Writing Persuasive Messages

Last update: 21 August 2002
The previous section, Understanding Persuasion, introduced the fundamentals of persuasion. This section shows you how to apply those fundamentals to common business situations calling for persuasive messages.

Whenever you are writing to someone who has no compelling reason to do (or think) as you ask in your message—and perhaps even no reason to read or reply to it—you need to write a persuasive message. How persuasive you need to be depends on how obvious it is to your reader that he or she stands to benefit from acting (or thinking) in the manner you suggest. The three broad categories of persuasive messages are persuasive requests, sales messages (including those that sell ideas), and collection letters.

In any persuasive situation, readers want to know how they will benefit from doing as you suggest: How the product or service will benefit them, what they will gain if they change their thinking about an issue, or how they can avoid difficulties by changing their thinking or behavior. Some situations may require more than one persuasive message, with each new message picking up where the previous one left off. Sales campaigns and collection letters frequently use this technique.

In general, the more difficult the persuasive task, the more slowly the writer should proceed. People do not like and will resist being pushed into things. Give them time to decide for themselves that they will benefit from acting on your message.

Persuasive Requests

Everyone needs to write a persuasive request at one time or another. Would you like to obtain a “name” speaker for a meeting? Do you need to secure donations (of either time or money) for a charity? Have you had a problem convincing a company to replace a defective product? Each of these situations would call for a persuasive request. The four types of persuasive requests are requests for favors, adjustments, credit, and donations.

Persuasive Requests for Favors

Asking for a favor by mail—whether email or letter—is not the same as asking a favor from a friend in person. Friends usually enjoy helping each other and know that as the relationship continues, the favor will probably be returned. When you write to someone requesting a favor, however, you must offer him or her a benefit that will serve as a substitute for continuing friendship.

Because your persuasive request will need to be placed in a specific communication context quickly, introduce the reason you are writing early in the message. Do so in a way that paces the reader’s expectation by mentioning the main benefit (see “Categories of Appeal” in Understanding Persuasion) before the specific nature of the request is clear. Beginning with a question about a common concern or with a statement about a common problem will pace the reader’s current beliefs and will serve to catch his or her attention.

Lead the reader by using the you-attitude to maintain his or her interest in the situation. (For more on the you-attitude, see Understanding Context.) Blend outcomes by explaining why you are requesting the favor in a way that shows the reader how he or she will benefit. Specify the compensation in positive terms, even when what you can offer is less than the reader may expect. Avoid the temptation to apologize for insufficient compensation.

Your closing should motivate the reader by reiterating the main reader benefit and asking him or her to make a definite commitment by a specific date. Telephone contact may be required for speed, but written confirmation (memo, letter, fax, or email) is usually more dependable. Sample 28 illustrates these principles.

Be sure to make your message appropriate for the situation and audience. A message that is more persuasive than it needs to be is often less successful than a message that is less persuasive than it should be. Sample 29 illustrates a simple request for a favor when the request is based primarily on friendship.

Persuasive Requests for Adjustments

Most claims and requests for adjustments can be handled as routine, informational messages (see Writing Positive and Routine Messages). Sometimes, however, you will need to write a persuasive message to achieve the results you desire. You may, for example, have written one request as an informational message and received an unsatisfactory reply. Or you may feel that your reader will be inclined to ignore or resist your message because of the circumstances involved.

In requesting an adjustment, you can appeal to the following qualities in your reader:

  1. Sense of fair play (an appeal to psychological pleasure).
  2. Desire for customer goodwill (an indirect appeal to wealth).
  3. Need for a good reputation (an indirect appeal to wealth).
  4. Sense of legal or moral responsibility (an appeal to wealth or pleasure).

When you are writing a persuasive request for adjustment, remember that your objective is to have the adjustment approved. You may be angry with your reader or his or her organization, and you may be tempted to express that anger. Your reader, however, will be much more inclined to approve your request when you present it in a calm, logical manner. This does not mean that you can’t let your reader know how you feel. Your disappointment or frustration with the products, policies, or services provided by the reader or his or her organization may well be the most important reason for your request.

The main part of your letter or memo, however, must be a clear and logical presentation of the facts. Your reader must know exactly what you expect and why you expect it if you are to receive the adjustment. Sample 30 illustrates a persuasive request.

Persuasive Requests for Credit

Persuasive requests for credit must be based on circumstances that genuinely warrant the extension of credit in spite of the requester’s inability to pass certain credit tests. For example, you may be opening a new store and need to purchase inventory on terms longer than your supplier’s usual policy permits, or you may be starting a new business and will have higher than normal start-up costs. Or you may be refused a department-store credit card when you believe that your record indicates that you are fully capable of meeting your financial obligations.

Persuasive requests for credit need to demonstrate to the reader that the writer has a good understanding of how credit works, an intention of fulfilling credit obligations, and an ability to pay. Be sure to cover the following points:

  1. Pace:  Place the message in context by referring to previous correspondence ("Your letter refusing my application for credit came as a surprise . . .") or by focusing on the way the reader can benefit by extending you credit (primarily increased sales). Normal interest on the loan is not enough of a benefit to mention because it is outweighed by the greater than usual risk you obviously pose to the creditor; otherwise, you would have been extended credit on the basis of your ability to pass normal credit tests.

  2. Lead:  Show your reader that you understand that credit is a privilege, not a right. Be positive and confident even though you have been refused credit once already.

  3. Blend Outcomes:  Explain your financial position and the method by which you expect to pay. Be specific. List credit references, employment and income, any assets and outstanding obligations, and other pertinent facts. Show how the reader will benefit by extending credit.

  4. Motivate:  State your request specifically and confidently.

Sample 31 illustrates these points.

Persuasive Requests for Donations

Most political, activist, and public service organizations require donations to stay in business. Many churches, schools, and colleges would operate at a loss without donations. Raising funds for charitable organizations has become a specialized occupation, with a lot of the major fund-raising being conducted by telephone.

Though you may not choose to work for an organization that makes a regular practice of soliciting funds, you may find that at various times in your life you will belong to various nonprofit organizations that could benefit from a few extra dollars. Fraternities, sororities, social clubs wishing to undertake worthy causes, youth clubs, and senior-citizen groups are a few examples of nonprofit organizations that may not be able to afford professional fund-raisers.

People who respond to requests for funds fall into two general categories: (1) major givers (wealthy donors, foundations, and corporations), who respond primarily to rational appeals, and (2) donors of small amounts who respond primarily to emotional appeals. (See the section on Audience and Appeals in Understanding Persuasion.)

Major givers wish to have a full explanation of how the money will be used, and they will want to see a detailed operating budget. Major givers expect you to demonstrate a real need. Most people, however, give primarily for emotional reasons. They give because they wish to help others who are less fortunate than they are; they give because they can see an opportunity to spend a little of their money doing good for others.

Like all persuasive messages, requests for funds must be carefully considered from the standpoint of cost-effectiveness. Each letter costs printing and postage, but not everyone who receives one will respond. Your mailing list should be selected carefully on the basis of what audience will have a special interest in your particular project. Because letters requesting donations are typically unsolicited, they employ many of the same strategies used by unsolicited sales letters.

Requests for funds follow the same basic organizational pattern as other persuasive messages:

  1. Pace:   State the problem in such a way that the reader can identify with it. Whether you are writing to a major giver or to the general public, use a people-oriented, personal beginning.

  2. Lead:   Explain the problem in a way the reader can appreciate. Your main task is to provide enough human interest to keep the reader reading.

  3. Blend Outcomes:   Show what you will do with the money. Major givers are interested in your overall budget. Most people are interested in how you have helped (or will help) individuals. Consider enclosing a separate budget statement.

  4. Motivate:   Ask specifically for a donation. If the donation is tax-deductible, say so. Provide a postage-paid reply envelope to make the action easy, and remind the reader of the importance of the contribution. A postscript will frequently improve your return. In the postscript, mention a new reader benefit or special benefit for acting promptly.

See Sample 32 for an illustration of these principles.

Sales Letters

From one point of view, every letter you write will be selling something. For example, requests sell your responsibility and credibility. Even letters conveying information may be said to “sell” a business relationship based on trust and fair play. When you are deliberately using a letter to sell a product or a service, or when the sole purpose of the letter is to promote future business, your message requires a special strategy.

In addition to analyzing your audience, you must know your product or service thoroughly before you can write an effective sales letter. What will your product or service do for your reader? How will it satisfy your reader’s need for health, wealth, pleasure, or curiosity? (See “Categories of Appeal” in Understanding Persuasion.)

Sales letters fall into three general, overlapping categories: unsolicited, solicited, and soft-sell. Unsolicited sales letters are also known as direct-mail advertising; they are a form of advertising sent by mail directly to the prospective buyer. Because such advertising is not requested and often not desired, the paper-based version is often called “junk mail”, while the electronic form is called “spam.” Solicited sales letters are replies to inquiries about products or services. Soft-sell letters, also called cordial contact letters, are special goodwill letters designed to maintain cordial relations with important customers. Cordial contact is increasingly maintained by email messages sent on a regular basis.

Unsolicited Sales Letters

Direct-mail advertising is big business. The average person receives more than 500 pieces of direct-mail a year. In spite of the fact that most of it goes directly into the trash, in the United States alone, consumers spend about $250 billion in response to unsolicited sales letters and catalog offerings. Each dollar spent on direct-mail advertising returns about $10 in sales, which is almost twice the effectiveness of a television commercial. Because current data collection and processing enable direct sales companies to develop extremely accurate psychographs on consumers, direct-mail advertising has become increasingly effective in recent years.

Organizations using direct-mail advertising purchase or otherwise obtain mailing lists designed to target those who match a particular psychograph. If you own a home, buy a car, subscribe to a magazine, or use a credit card, you are on somebody’s list. As the cost of paper and postage has increased, buying and selling of mailing lists based on ethnic background, occupation, and a variety of personal and professional interests have become big business in their own right. Your name and psychograph could be worth as much as 20 cents each time they are sold.

Because many who receive unsolicited sales letters consider them junk mail, your first objective must be to convince the reader that opening the envelope and reading the letter would be worthwhile. Consider using an envelope teaser—a few words on the envelope to suggest a reader benefit—to encourage the reader to continue. Other “envelope tricks” include the following

Remember that your main concern is with those people in your audience who are truly prospects, people who both want your product or service and can afford to buy it. Write your letter or email message to persuade those with a real interest in your product or service rather than writing it to entertain everyone who may receive it.

If you are in the business of direct mail advertising, you will doubtless need to purchase lists from time to time. The best mailing list you can possibly have, however, consists of the names of those who have already purchased your product and liked it. However many “tricks of the trade” you use to catch attention and to persuade people who respond, you will do better in the long-run if your product or service fulfills the explicit and implied promises of your letter.

Successful sales letters display the following characteristics:

  1. They emphasize benefits rather than the features of the product or service. The word free, in spite of being extremely overworked, is still a powerful motivator. Buy one and get one free typically works better than either half-price sale or 50 percent off.

  2. They use active voice and personalize the letter by making the reader the subject or object of many sentences. They use word pictures to create a mental image of the reader enjoying the use of the product or service. When the mailing list is good and fairly exclusive, they address each letter individually. When the list is large and less exclusive, they use a simulated inside address to pace the reader while avoiding trolling salutations, such as “Dear Friend” or “Dear Homeowner.”

    The best simulated inside addresses are questions that cannot be answered yes or no. Questions that can be answered yes or no are next in effectiveness, and statements about a reader benefit are a third choice. See Sample 33 for an example of a simulated inside address.

  3. They focus on one main appeal.  See the previous discussion of the central selling point in the section on message development in Understanding Persuasion.

  4. They subordinate the price, unless it is an obvious bargain, by mentioning it after most of the benefits have been listed and described. They state the price in terms of small units ($5 a box rather than $50 a carton), compare the price with the cost of something else with which the reader is more familiar, or, when the price is high, offer the option of extended payments.

  5. They use enclosed brochures to illustrate the product or service and to supplement the details presented in the letter. (Note:  references to such enclosures should be late in the letter to help encourage the reader to finish reading the letter before turning to—or turning back to the brochure.)

  6. They are specific in their request for action, specifying exactly what the reader should do (complete the order blank, send a check, call a toll-free number, or visit a dealer), making the action easy by providing order blanks and return envelopes, and encouraging the reader to act promptly.

  7. They use a variety of formatting techniques to create in the letter. Such techniques include varying paragraph widths, adding “personal” notes with fake handwriting, using different colors for different paragraphs or key phrases, including photographs or other illustrations, and adding a postscript to restate an important benefit and suggest urgency.

Sample 33 illustrates these principles.

Solicited Sales Letters

It is often easier to write a solicited sales letter than an unsolicited sales letter because the reader has invited you to send information and is expecting your letter. Consequently, you do not have to worry that your letter will be ignored completely.

Whenever someone has written requesting information about your products or services (or called requesting information or completed and returned a product-inquiry card), you have a good opportunity to encourage that person to buy from you. Your message should display all the characteristics of an unsolicited sales letter, but it should be prepared individually rather than as a form. Use the following structure:

  1. Pace:   Your reader is already interested in your product or service, so begin by answering one of his or her main questions. Find the most important question in your reader’s letter of inquiry that you can answer in a positive way. If you have been asked to make a recommendation, do it first.

  2. Lead:   Answer all your reader’s questions as clearly and as specifically as you can. Subordinate negative answers. Adapt your letter to meet the needs expressed in the reader’s inquiry.

  3. Blend Outcomes:   Supply the details and evidence that seem most appropriate for your individual reader. Use an enclosed brochure for additional information to keep the letter from becoming too cluttered.

  4. Motivate:   Just as in an unsolicited sales letter, you need to tell the reader exactly what to do, make the required action seem easy ("visit your local dealer"), and encourage the reader to act quickly. Note:  Never use a postscript in a solicited sales letter because doing so would indicate a lack of planning.

See Sample 34 for an illustration of a solicited sales letter.

Soft-Sell Letters

Soft-sell or cordial-contact letters are special goodwill letters intended to remind the reader that your organization provides a particular product or service. Because of the cost involved, paper-based soft-sell letters are used primarily at the industrial level to keep a company’s name familiar to important clients and customers. Some organizations use newsletters as soft-sell correspondence with a specific audience. Also, in the past few years, organizations have been using regular telephone contact, email lists, and Web sites to perform similar functions. Cordial contact by email offers many of the same advantages as soft-sell letters but at much lower cost.

To be successful, soft-sell letters must be welcomed and appreciated by the reader, that is they must provide something of intrinsic value to the reader, who must look forward to receiving them month after month. The bulk of the letter needs to provide useful information or material of entertainment value and work the name of the writer’s organization, product, or service in naturally. Sample 35 is an example of a soft-sell letter.

Letters That Sell Ideas

Nearly everything said so far about selling products and services applies equally well to selling ideas. When you need to persuade higher management to allocate more resources for your department or adopt a new procedure or persuade your staff to conserve supplies, follow the same basic procedure you would use to sell a product or service: analyze your audience and select appeals based on their needs.

Selling ideas by letter, memo, or email requires the same kind of structural planning as that used for selling a product or service. To sell an idea, however, you need to take a few additional precautions:

  1. Pace:   You need to begin not only with a problem of interest to your reader, but also with a premise your reader readily accepts. If the reader disagrees with your opening, he or she will be all the more inclined to resist the rest of your message.

  2. Lead:   How quickly you can develop your argument depends on your reader’s likely degree of resistance. People usually have a vested interest in maintaining their current beliefs, and before they will adopt new ideas, they must be fully convinced that it is in their self-interest to do so. Corporations, for example, are notorious for accepting reports that agree with current policy and rejecting those that disagree.

  3. Blend Outcomes:   Rely on truth and logic. When there are two sides to an issue, present both sides. You can emphasize your own side of the argument, but your reader will resent your message if you fail to mention other obvious possibilities. Always give your reader all the facts that might influence his or her decision. Long-range results are usually more important than short-range success.

  4. Motivate:  Let your reader know exactly what you expect. When your reader’s resistance is high, it is better to persuade by degrees (many messages over time) than to make your message an all-or-nothing proposition. Remind the reader of the benefits to be gained (or lost) by adopting (or not adopting) your idea.

Sample 36 illustrates the basic components of a letter selling an idea.

Collection Letters

Because doing business by credit always involves a certain degree of risk, it is sometimes necessary to persuade people who owe money to pay. In recent years, collection has become an increasingly specialized business, primarily as a result of credit card purchases, which transfers many of the concerns of collection away from retailers to organizations that specialize in credit transactions.

Consultants and those who own small retail establishments are the most likely to have sold goods or services on unsecured credit, but everyone in business should have a basic understanding of collection procedures: A sale is not complete until the seller has been paid.

The materials presented here are designed to provide an overview of the process so that if you are faced with a collection problem, you will be able to decide what actions to take for yourself before turning the problem over to a collection specialist. Note that how far you go in the process depends on the amount owed and the nature of your business. You need to know how much time, energy, and money you can afford to put into collecting the amount owed.

The collection procedure is one of gradual escalation in forcefulness. When a bill becomes overdue, the writer should first assume that the reader intends to pay but has forgotten. If the reader does not respond to a reminder (or reminders) to pay, the writer should assume that the reader is not paying because of financial, personal, or medical problems. At this point, the writer can help the reader solve his or her problems by making new financial arrangements that will ease the reader’s burden. Most people who are slow to pay do so after a reminder or two. Only after these efforts have been made should the writer assume that the reader will have to be persuaded to pay.


Reminders of overdue bills usually consist of

  1. A duplicate copy of the original bill.

  2. Duplicate copies of the original bill stamped Reminder or Past Due, often specifying how much past due the bill is.

  3. A short note (usually a form) specifying the amount due, the due date, late charges, and the account number.

A company usually sends one or more reminders to a customer because most people who are going to pay will do so when they are reminded gently. Sometimes companies choose to combine a final reminder with an inquiry about the reasons for not paying. Reminders of overdue bills are negative messages. For an example of a reminder, see Sample 37.


Before the writer decides that the customer needs to be persuaded to pay, the writer should try to discover whether special circumstances are preventing payment. Many people are embarrassed when they cannot pay their bills, and instead of taking positive action to solve their financial problems, they hope that if they ignore their problems long enough, they will solve themselves. When the writer demonstrates a genuine willingness to help such readers solve their financial difficulties, most will respond by agreeing to new terms that will allow the company to collect its money and the customer to remain solvent. Inquiries are written with the assumption that it is better to collect your money a little late than not collect it at all.

Inquiries are divided into two categories. A first inquiry can be simple as the one illustrated in Sample 38. A second inquiry may contain an appeal for a prompt partial payment and some suggestion for taking care of the obligation in ways other than those specified in the original agreement. Keep inquiries positive, and avoid suggesting that reader dissatisfaction with your goods or services might be responsible for late payment.


When the reader has failed to respond to one or more reminders and one or more inquiries, the writer must assume that the reader will not pay unless he or she is persuaded—perhaps even forced legally—to do so. Because you would not be writing an appeal unless you had gone through the reminder and inquiry stages, you should assume that the reader is going to be well-prepared to resist your message. For this reason, many organizations turn the debt over to a collection professional.

Should you choose to continue the collection process yourself, you might begin with one positive appeal, such as an appeal to cooperation, fair play, or pride. Because the reader has failed to respond to your earlier messages, however, the chances are that unless you can give him or her a very good reason for paying, he or she will continue to ignore your efforts to collect. For this reason, negative appeals to the reader’s self-interest are usually appropriate at this stage. The reader should be told that by not paying, he or she is likely to lose the following:

  1. Credit privileges.
  2. The goods or services not paid for.
  3. Additional money or property.
  4. Good reputation and self-respect.

Sample 39 illustrates these principles.

If your reader fails to respond to your appeal (or appeals, if you choose to send more than one), give him or her one last opportunity to pay along with notification of the action you will take if payment does not arrive. This final letter is known as the ultimatum. Your assumption in writing is that the reader will have to be forced to pay.

In this last effort to collect, you should review the facts (what the reader purchased and when and your efforts to collect over time), set an end date, and tell the reader that on that date you will turn the debt over to a collection agency or to a lawyer. Avoid threatening the reader (which is illegal), and avoid accusing the reader of personal shortcomings or engaging in name-calling (deadbeat, crook, loser, etc.).

Even at this point, you may be able to retain your reader’s goodwill and cash business, so remain fair, reasonable, and logical throughout. And then be sure to follow through—if the reader still doesn’t pay, hire a collection professional or turn the matter over to your attorney.